Continuity through the Word: Renovation and Tradition in Javier Sologuren
Javier Sologuren (Lima, 1921-2004) is a key figure in twentieth-century Peruvian literature and he masterfully developed his scholarly work in the most diverse aspects. An instinct for poetic creation (which he attributes to childhood difficulties), the intuition and curiosity of a good reader, and academic training in prestigious universities coalesce in his work. The latter include the University of San Marcos (where he received his doctorate in Hispanic Literature), The College of Mexico (where he met Alfonso Reyes and was Raimundo Lida’s student), and the University of Louvain. This mix of influences results in a poetic corpus that is as substantive as it is stylistically sound.
In addition to being remembered as a university professor, Sologuren is known as an influential literary and art critic. His corpus of essays, which he wrote with constant erudition and personal perspective, treat myriad themes, including Spanish poetry; classical Japanese literature; French, Swedish, and German poets; painting; sculpture, and so on. And quite a few of his essays explore his other area of interest: literary translation. Sologuren considered translation a veritable creative exercise, and his versions of French and Italian poetry are highly regarded. Editing was yet another venue for practicing criticism. Not only did he edit the universal classics, but his interest in Peruvian poetry by young writers is also well known. Thanks to Sologuren’s endorsement, poets such as Javier Heraud, Luis Hernández, and others published their first books and gained prominence in Peruvian literature.
Along with Jorge Eduardo Eielson, Sebastián Salazar Bondy, and Raúl Deustua, a young Sologuren formed a group of poets now known as the “Generation of 1950” (with the addition of Blanca Varela, Carlos Germán Belli, etc.). Sologuren would go on to publish the anthology La poesía contemporánea del Perú [Contemporary poetry of Peru] (1946) with Eielson and Salazar Bondy. This edition established both the themes and representatives of twentieth-century Peruvian poetry. Eventually, José María Eguren and César Vallejo would be viewed as the founders of modernity’s poetics, but Sologuren’s intellectual perfectionism would be deeper. This distinguished him from his contemporaries, especially because of the ways it impacted his creative work.
For a creative personality like Sologuren, knowledge was essential. The name he picked to summarize his poetic corpus, Vida continua [Continuous life] (2016, in its 5th edition), reveals a fluid development of his knowledge during six decades (1939-1999). Throughout these years, he composed some twenty poetry collections (which he called “booklets”) and long poems. While his vast production showcases recurrent themes and images, his works demonstrate clear stylistic diversity. He uses varied methods in Vida continua, including those from non-Western traditions, with excellent results.
The author’s flexibility in reestablishing his formal directives stems from a drive to experiment, which at its root is the origin of his poetics: poetry is fluid. It is not a static material and poets should continue searching for their secret. For example, a style based on the accumulation of parallel images is evident in his first works. In later collections, Sologuren champions concision, offering a stylistic sensibility that occasionally approximates the Japanese haiku:
A freshly crisp glass
of celestial liquor:
raindrops on blades of grass.
Sologuren would say that true creative work lies in ascertaining the precise form of expression for a given content. Therefore, his creative work relies on a deep understanding of techniques and forms: knowledge is used as a tool, not for the sake of intellectual vanity.
Only an exceptional writer in the Peruvian literary landscape writes this way. Roberto Paoli confirms as much in his studies on the ways Peruvian poets confront the inherent limitations of language in poetry (Estudios sobre literatura peruana contemporánea [Studies on contemporary Peruvian literature], 1985). At times, limits push authors to give up writing, as was the case with Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, for example, and his decades-long silence after the publication of Abolición de la muerte [Abolition of death] (1935). Or Eielson, who stopped writing poetry after publishing two books in 1965 and instead turned to fine arts and visual experiments. He took up writing again in 1980. In contrast, Paoli highlights Sologuren’s ability for taking on silence as part of his language, as evidenced in his increasing preference for shorter verses (for example, in his Estancias, published in 1960) and his experiments with typographical space and iconic poems:
over the abyss
without a shadow
Giving up writing is not an option for Sologuren, and not primarily because he adopts silence, but rather due to his faith in the potential and mutability of words. He knows that a word between two pauses opens a plenitude of reverberations and meanings. This explains his preference for short verses that divide phrases. At the same time, silence and the white of the page are supporting actors for the word, their effects activating linguistic possibilities. Something similar occurs with other spatial experiments: the poem “margins” is divided into two columns in such a way that words create simultaneous phrases.
Sologuren’s faith in the word is rooted in a technical and historical awareness of language that is unencumbered by the procedures and restraints of stylistic trends. This awareness is more developed in Sologuren’s work than in that of other authors. He is a critic who always contemplates the uses of language. Medieval and Golden Age Spanish poetry no doubt nurtured his understanding of the Spanish language. Sologuren is an expert in this poetry, and his own poetry certainly draws from these sources without fear of betraying their mark. A poem like “Garcileño Theme” develops its sensibility by selecting images from Garcilaso de la Vega’s poetic universe:
If the riverbed is dry there is the brook
that flows from the lover and nourishes him:
perhaps love already lost its lure.
However, Sologuren does not limit his sources and he draws from world literature, from all the cultures and periods he studies and makes his own. In “Crown of Fall,” he calls on Homeric simile to define the anguish of love:
Like this purple leaf
that afternoon rain extinguishes
and the wind sweeps along light and melancholy
are the slow, burdened paces
of those looking for the gentle
sound of warmth, the walls
of their homes soft and bright:
thick, worn fabrics, fragrant silks
where love works and rests.
Sologuren uses one of the oldest techniques in literature: parallelism between nature and human processes—a device in Vida continua that is so very traditional, yet one he makes so clearly his own. The most memorable symbols and images in this work are inspired by nature.
Such a traditional influence would seem paradoxical in poetry rooted in constant change. Nonetheless, Sologuren does not cling to tradition as an aesthetic aid. The poetry of the past flows naturally in his verses because he understands its essence, which is to hold human feelings and wisdom, to contain a spirit that remains the same over time and distance. This theme appears in his essays and in numerous poems:
honey and thorns on my tongue
others’ work was
part of my experience
of those who are no longer here but who live on
and of those who are still here
and still insist
on seeing clearly
on the world’s nonsensical heart
because of these shadows
and because of others in life
who illuminate me
stopped being other
to turn into mine
and everybody’s at the same time
am I not in the end many
Consequently, classical Japanese literature and the Greek epic are completely relevant today in the work of a twentieth-century Spanish-speaking writer. Given poetry’s power to reproduce and eternalize the human condition, Sologuren sees a technical achievement in the word, which in his poem “Sleeping Daedalus” is akin to mathematics and architecture. He affirms as much: “everything humans conquer is made into language. The great palaces and monuments disappear, but they remain in some poem.”
Literature, therefore, provides the writer with themes, meters, images that live on and can be merged. Sologuren seamlessly combines formal experimentation with tradition. As Ana María Gazzolo observes, the balance of opposites that is replicated in other aspects of Vida continua speaks to a fundamental aspect of Sologuren’s poetry (“Javier Sologuren: la poesía como ejercicio y como metáfora”, 1991). His first book of poetry, El morador [The denizen] (1944), was already a successful mix of gongorism and figurative surrealism. Moreover, the poem “Fragments of Eulogy” combines spatial experimentation with syntactic parallelism of opposite terms, an established device:
sun sun sun sun
drop of light
sun sun sun sun
The same faith in the word that brings Sologuren close to the past also pushes him to constantly renovate: his trust is reasoned, not blind. He is aware that language can be perfected, that it does not always fully express what one wants it to, that techniques go out of style and that no verse is magical or absolute. Consequently, knowing that the materials and procedures of writing are limited, his work continually questions the essence of poetry itself.
Javier Sologuren’s work is eminently self-reflexive. The word is the main theme, yet other themes develop out of the word. Initially, there is a clear preoccupation with defining poetry. The fourth section of “two or three experiences of emptiness,” for example, can be read in this light:
the white walls of the house
the white bones underground
the white solitude
the sea of the sky
the white butterfly
in the black
line of the ink
until it reaches its black edge
These verses are from Folios de El enamorado y la muerte [Pages of the man in love and death] (1980) and recreate a metaphorical calling that marks Sologuren’s style from its beginning. Poetic language must discover the analogy between subjects that, viewed through another medium, would be incompatible: this is why the whiteness of the walls that isolate an individual are similar to the whiteness leading to death, and everything can be contained in written ink.
Another question emerging in his writing has to do with the origin of a poem and the use of silence. Given Sologuren’s technical awareness of poetic creation, these issues inevitably appear in his tests, as every poem is a finite sonorous sequence. Nevertheless, silence is always destroyed by a new poem:
do not fall
bubbles iris suns
out of nothing
rise and burst
(something damp like
the tongue is lost)
through the air
with no memory
Poetry is viewed as an oscillation between sonorous movement, silence, and regeneration in which the “abyss” is shattered: therefore, it is problematic to sustain that silence in his language functions only as silence.
Despite their attempts to define poetry itself, Sologuren’s poems are not lacking in emotion, nor are they dogmatic. The definitions he offers are based in emotions that visually arrange ideas and uproot all logic. The emotions he creates are clean, composed and balanced. In Vida continua these reflections can truly take shape because the writer himself is part of them. Sologuren creates a lyrical subject who is recognizably a writer and, with autobiographical references and sundry self-citations, Sologuren infuses himself in this subject.
Sologuren’s real presence in his verses links to another major theme in Vida continua: he believes that all works should be born of reality, of the world surrounding the writer or simmering in his soul. Life and poetry are interdependent for Sologuren. They are analogous in that they are sequential processes that are constantly in the making:
Dig out the internal celebration of blood
its captive lily, its sweetness;
rise to the earth in full thirst
and come to me violet word
to the purple conviction of a verse.
Poetry molds language to express and develop the emotion of an experience. It affirms and eternalizes life through form. As a result, writing is Javier Sologuren’s most intimate need and he must have faith in the word. He thus views poetic renewal as an absolute necessity, because a discovered form, sooner or later, becomes crystalized—a form in which the flow of existence is inapprehensible.
Universidad de Piura/Universidad de Salamanca
Translated by Amy Olen
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Renato Guizado Yampi has an MA in Latin American Literature and teaches Spanish Language and Literature at the University of Piura (Peru). He is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Salamanca. His current research focuses on the stylistic evolution of the Peruvian poet Javier Sologuren. His book publications include Detalle, ritmo y sintaxis en la poesía de José María Eguren (2017) and Forma y sentido en la poesía de Ricardo Silva-Santisteban (2018).
Amy Olen is Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her Ph.D. is in Spanish and Portuguese from The University of Texas at Austin. She holds Master’s Degrees in Translation Studies and Spanish and Portuguese, both from UW-Milwaukee. Her research interests include Latin American Indigenous writing and Translation Studies.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo